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It would be easy to spew critical bile at Constantine, based on the series of Hell-blazer graphic novels from DC Comics/Vertigo, if the movie — call it eye candy for the damned — didn’t scare up some devilish fun. Keanu Reeves, still in Neo black — it’s his color — as John Constantine, a chain-smoking Los Angeles private eye with terminal lung cancer. And that’s the least of his problems. As a teen, he offended God by trying to off himself, having been driven mad by his power to see demons who look just like humans. Hey, it’s L.A. p>r it is in this movie, which plays shake-it-up-baby with Alan Moore’s comic books by turning the blond, British hell blazer (Sting was an inspiration) into Reeves doing a stoner Bogart who rails against heaven. “God is a kid with an ant farm,” he says, drawing parallels to the world of The Matrix where computers use humans as playthings. Reeves brings a sly humor to the role, adding “asshole” to his sentences to sound tough, as in “I’m John Constantine, asshole.”p>redit debuting director Francis Lawrence — whose videos for Justin, Britney and Janet make him a sinner to elitist critics — for creating a moody film noir atmosphere (think Blade Runner) that holds the movie to its darker ambitions when the FX boys go into overdrive with tacky computer-generated monsters (think Van Helsing). Lawrence has a witty eye for composition — his vision of hell is playful and scary — but he can’t do much with a script that is logic-light and plot-heavy. p>onstantine has tried to buy his way into heaven by kicking the devil’s foot soldiers back to hell. But God’s not bending, and Lucifer (Peter Stormare in a white suit) is happy to offer Constantine another cigarette (“Go ahead, I have stock in them”) so he’ll die and stop performing impromptu exorcisms. As the androgynous Angel Gabriel (a nifty Tilda Swinton) tells Constantine, “You’re fucked.” That’s bad, because Gabe is God’s point man in the new war between good and evil.

According to the script, if not the Bible, God and Lucifer made a deal: They can dispatch emissaries in human form, but these “half-breeds” can’t interfere with free will. They can only influence-peddle, like Harvey Weinstein at the Oscars. Gavin Rossdale is a hoot as the evil Balthazar, looking like a Hollywood agent with a yen for Constantine, whom he calls “finger-lickin’ good.”

As you probably figured, the rules get broken. Demons t nosing into the real world. Swinton told the New York Times that Constantine had “the capacity to be a radical political film,” a way to represent the world “in the grip of people who are dressing themselves up as God’s right hand and taking us into war.” Take that, Dubya and Condi.

Sadly, there are only remnants of that radical thinking in what’s onscreen. Despite juicy supporting turns from Shia LaBeouf, who plays Robin to Reeves’ Batman, and Djimon Hounsou, who runs a club for half-breeds that looks like the Wars cantina as conceived by the Marquis de Sade, the bulk of the film is taken up with our anti-hero’s attempt to save “the girl,” a cop named Angela. Since she is played by thinking-man’s hottie Rachel Weisz, this is not a chore. Still, the film’s larger issues are far more compelling than watching Angela fret that her twin sister committed suicide. That plot strand does lead to a wow trip to hell, which Angela achieves by nearly drowning herself in her bath. Don’t try this at home. Constantine, being a pro, merely holds a cat and sticks his feet in a tub of water.

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Constantine has enough subtextual codes to spawn its own cult. And if you stay past the closing credits, you’ll find an extra scene that on my Ouija board spells s-e—u-e-l. The choice for the uninitiated is simple: Take the ride for its fitful thrills and dark elements, or just say the hell with it.

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